Locally Led History
The need for local leadership in natural resources management was one of the most important factors leading to the establishment of conservation districts approximately 70 years ago. Following the creation of the federal Soil Conservation Service, conservation districts were created as a local focal point for coordinating and delivering technical assistance and funding to private landowners.
Over the years, federal, state and local governments have channeled assistance through conservation districts to address virtually every aspect of natural resource conservation. Districts have focused on setting priorities and carrying out programs based on local conditions and needs.
Legislation such as the 1985 and 1990 Farm Bills and the 1987 Clean Water Act amendments however, significantly changed the way NRCS and conservation districts address conservation and natural resource management needs. These and other programs, driven largely by national priorities, focused federal conservation efforts on a narrower range of natural resource concerns.
The enactment of the Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act of 1996 – the 1996 Farm Bill – signaled a shift back to the original district approach of locally led conservation. Subsequent Farm Bills reinforced the return to locally led conservation. Conservation districts now have the opportunity to return to their roots and lead their communities in determining local conservation needs and priorities.
With the 1996 and subsequent Farm Bills, Congress emphasized the need for a close working relationship among conservation districts, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and other government agencies. To facilitate this, conservation districts are asked to bring together local working groups to provide input to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in order to guide program implementation and integrate the Farm Bill with other local initiatives.
As a process, however, locally led conservation goes beyond the Farm Bill or any other individual program. There are a number of program resources available through USDA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, and other federal and state agencies that can be tapped for assistance in carrying out a local conservation program. There are also many resources available through state and local sources. NRCS and conservation district leadership will be critical in marshaling these resources to increase the visibility and effectiveness of local conservation efforts.